"Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art"

By Nochlin, Linda | Artforum International, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

"Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art"


Nochlin, Linda, Artforum International


Despite the barrage of negative criticism that greeted "Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art" when it opened in mid-March--from hysterical outrage to self-satisfied dismissals of both the art and the ideas put forward--it is an uncommonly thoughtful if profoundly disturbing show. Like two other important recent exhibitions on the East Coast--the Gerhard Richter retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Barnett Newman retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, both of which in their own manner touched on questions raised in "Mirroring Evil"--the Jewish Museum exhibition demands careful and respectful looking and meditation. By "respectful" I do not, of course, mean to recommend pompous solemnity, which would be out of keeping with the palpable air of irony, satire, playfulness, and send-up that permeates the material on view--on the contrary. I mean that the pieces should be considered in detail and in an appropriate context of postmodernity--which is to say, an art that emphasizes diversity rather than homogeneity; that rejects a single master narrative of history or its representation; that provides a potent critique of modernist orthodoxy in both theory and practice; and above all, that is inevitably imbricated in the world of the commodity and that of popular culture.

The word "mirroring" in the show's title can only be understood as an ironic reference to realism or the reflection theory of representation that backs it up, since the evil in question is anything but simply "mirrored" at the Jewish Museum. Indeed, the young artists who participate in the show (and, this is crucial, they are nearly all young) make clear their complete separation--temporal, spatial, ideological--from that univers concentrationaire that is their ostensible subject. At the same time they make clear that this ostensible subject, already prepackaged and fetishized in "Holocaust" memorials, local shrines, documentaries, theater, and novels, can now be represented--and thereby distanced--only through the visual apparatus of popular culture: the pop icon, the fetish, most notably, the toy. To do otherwise would be, to put it bluntly, obscene. Indeed, there is little obscenity per se in the works on view in "Mirroring Evil," although several deal with the raw material of the obscene and the salacious , the shocking and the excessive. No neo-Nazi would get a kick our of the show. Nor is there anything anti-Semitic in its iconography. Indeed, it must be noted that the only works at the Jewish Museum that could possibly be described as obscene are those in the "counter-exhibition" by the figural expressionist Zoran Music, created in 1970: "We Are Not the Last" consists of vaguely brushed barren landscapes, delectably painted piles of corpses, and blurred, generic, gape-mouthed screaming heads. Making something appealingly aesthetic out of the experience of the camps seems to me obscene, as does the attempt to ennoble through nifty brushwork senseless suffering and waste. Yet I am sure that many people want and expect this sort of representation of the Holocaust and admire the work's soulful beauty.

Before turning to specific works in "Mirroring Evil" I would like to place them within the several possible categories of response to the Holocaust, aside from the Holocaust Memorial per se. First of all, there is realism, a category that might include photojournalism--the documentary photographs or films of the actual sites of outrage, like those familiar images taken after the liberation of the death camps at Auschwitz or the even more horrifying footage confiscated from Nazi archives of Jewish corpses being hauled to mass graves--and the drawings, paintings, and sculpture inspired by such documentary material.

Then there is what one might call the modernist response, which may include both negation and silence, a refusal to represent, following Adorno's often cited (and miscited) statement that "to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. …

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